Westminster Committee considers impact of Covid-19 pandemic on parental employment

Today (Tuesday 25 May) an evidence hearing at the Covid-19 Committee at Westminster, focused on the potential long-term impact of the pandemic on parental employment. The Committee sought to identify the best ways to support families to get back into and stay in work, the role of childcare in supporting employment and how women have been disproportionately impacted. While the evidence session focused on England, much of the evidence reflects experiences of parents in Northern Ireland which Employers For Childcare has previously identified through our own research.

Impact on parental employment and important role of childcare

The strong link between parental employment and childcare was identified and expert witnesses highlighted how the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the essential role of childcare. However, it was recognised that the childcare system was already fragile before the pandemic and as we look to recovery, we need to ensure that it is fit for purpose and can work for all. Similar sentiments were shared by parents who responded to our NI Childcare Survey 2020:

“Covid -19 has highlighted the value and importance of affordable reliable and flexible childcare for working families.”

“Childcare remains vital for working families and if it’s not accessible I feel it is a massive barrier to work for many people.”

The discussion also explored other ways of supporting parents into employment and/or education including through promoting flexible working. This was similarly a key theme identified in our research with parents who emphasised the importance of flexible working in helping them to balance their work and home commitments, with many expressing their hope that this would continue after the pandemic:

“I think employers were more flexible about working hours etc at start of pandemic – but now even though childcare is a major problem I hear more parents saying their employers are expecting them to be available like pre-Covid.”

“Employers need to have a more flexible approach to parents that will allow employees to balance work-life, which will impact on better work productivity”

The Committee heard that the current system means that employees can only request flexible working once they have worked with an employer for 26 weeks, and then can only make one request once a year. It was highlighted by several witnesses providing evidence in the discussion that this should be a ‘day one right’ and not limited to one request per year. We know that many employers do already go above and beyond their statutory entitlements, to ensure that flexibility is considered in the job design and advertising stage, and would encourage all employers to consider the needs of their workforce as we progress out of the pandemic.

The discussion moved to the importance of having a strong childcare infrastructure, witnesses debated the 30-hour childcare scheme that is available only to working parents in England (note this scheme is not available to parents in Northern Ireland). However, with more parents out of work, this means they are no longer able to avail of this support, presenting challenges for parents, particularly lone parents and those with no access to informal childcare who are put in the difficult position of looking for employment but struggling to do so without access to the childcare they need. Witnesses called for the 30-hour scheme eligibility criteria to be extended to include parents who are looking for work or who are in education. As we in Northern Ireland begin to explore options for a Childcare Strategy, it’s important that we can learn from experiences in England and other parts of the UK to identify what works best for parents and childcare providers.

Mothers continue to be disproportionately impacted

Underpinning much of the discussion was a recognition that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on women, particularly those who are lone parents and women from ethnic minority groups, who have been more likely to reduce their working hours or to have been furloughed – impacting on their household income. It’s also important to recognise that women make up the majority of the childcare and early education workforce, and it is vital that we value this essential workforce who have worked with dedication and commitment throughout the pandemic.

What’s next?

Childcare is key in removing barriers to parental employment, particularly for women and those living in rural areas. It also assists in addressing structural inequalities and improving the lives of children, young people and their parents. It’s not acceptable that Northern Ireland does not have a Childcare Strategy, however we have the opportunity to learn from other parts of the UK to ensure that our system can work for all. We will continue to lobby for long-term investment in our childcare and early education sector and to promote family-friendly, flexible working as the way we work continues to evolve.

Employers For Childcare’s Family Benefits Advice Service provide free, impartial and confidential advice to parents on the financial support available with childcare as well as other help that you may be entitled to.  Our advisors also provide guidance to employers on issues relating to childcare, employment entitlements and workplace legislation. Just give the team a call on 028 9267 8200 or email hello@employersforchildcare.org for free, impartial and confidential advice.